The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
© 2010 Michelle Alexander
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the United States’ drug laws, coupled with its law enforcement and penal cultures, have ushered in a new era of discrimination, segregation, and 2nd class citizenship for African Americans.
In building her case, Alexander first demonstrates how law enforcement practices have become increasingly abusive, both physically and of the law. She then scrutinizes the penal system as a whole, revealing how dramatically the ranks of the imprisoned have swelled since the declaration of the drug war. That war is waged not against the manufacturers of narcotics in South America, but against their users; the streets and homes are the battlefield, through which the police storm through in full riot gear. Next, she elaborates on the traumatic consequences of being touched by the penal system; a mistaken arrest, not even a conviction, can haunt an individual for life, ruining their ability to find work and housing both on the market and through government assistance. So much as touching a joint can warrant an individual being thrown into a sinkhole of self-perpetuating despair and poverty.
Although each point is condemning on its own, throughout the text Alexander emphasizes the disproportionate way they impact African-American families. The police kick down the doors of black apartments, not white suburbs, even though drug use is statistically the same across ethnic lines. Blacks, not whites, are most subject to arbitrary traffic stops and unconstitutional drug searches. The result of these policies and practices is that African-American families and communities have been destroyed: millions of black men are in prison, and millions more unable to build a life for themselves through honest toil after having been branded a criminal. The chief weakness of her approach is that drug use is voluntary, something Alexander counters only with pointing toward the double standard which exists wherein blacks are punished hard for the same crime that whites are ignored for violating. (This is a a valid point, to be sure, though it doesn’t seem quite the match for countering the criticism.)
The old Jim Crow separated blacks from whites, relegating them to the sides or beneath the status of whites, through segregation and disenfranchisement. Although law enforcement and penal practices were not arranged deliberately against blacks like Jim Crow, the effects of the two sets of laws, Jim Crow and drug war, are strikingly the same: the act of being discriminated against by agents of government strangles any notion of citizenship among black youth in the cradle, while destroying their ability to create a life and stable family for themselves and become constructive members of society.The New Jim Crow exposes the lie that discrimination is a thing of the past; bigotry and abuse are plainly rampant. The work stands as a penetrating criticism of the United States’ prison system, which as much a stain on its human rights record as Jim Crow or slavery. This is one well worth reading.